College adopts composting program, hires new consultant

The College has recently instituted a new program for the environmentally-friendly disposal of food waste from the five dining halls. Previously, composting had been an exclusively student-run effort. Now, under the direction of Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services, the College has taken over and expanded the program.

Students began a small composting program to locally dispose of food waste from Dodd dining hall in 1994. Over the years, the program expanded until it overwhelmed local composting sites. As more and more students began disposing their food waste in the large, blue plastic composting containers, the amount of waste collected increased until it reached the current level of approximately 1,600 pounds of waste daily. At such a high level, on-site or local farm-based composting options rapidly became infeasible. The solution was to transport the food waste to Holiday Farm in Dalton, 20 miles south of Williamstown.

This program was entirely student run. A student manager, most recently Briana Halpin ’04, would organize several students each year to be a part of a composting task force. Each night, two members would collect the compost bins from the dinning halls and deposit them in a dumpster at the end of Spring Street. A contracted hauler would then transport the contents of the dumpster to Holiday Farm.

The new composting program started approximately two weeks ago under the auspices of Dining Services. Last year, a task force had recommended that the College take care of composting, to which the administration agreed in principle but did not fund. Therefore, at the beginning of this school year, food waste was not actually getting composted. Volpi remedied this problem by hiring an outside contractor to take over the student role in the composting process.

Halpin recognized the importance of this change. “Transitioning management from students to Dining Services is important because it signifies a firm commitment on the part of the College to the program,” she said. “Many students on campus considered the College’s long-standing reluctance to internalize composting to be irresponsible; its affirmation of composting this year is seen as an important gesture of [environmental] responsibility.”

She added, “the stability and longevity of composting is also ensured” by this change since “it was quite volatile as a student program, subject to lapses in participation around exam times and during breaks, and the beginning of each year was marked by inefficiency as student managers scrabbled to assemble a new composting force.”

The change also makes the composting program much safer. Previously, the heavy bins of food waste, which filled weigh approximately 200 pounds, had been difficult for students to lift and in some cases had caused injuries. Now that Dining Services is involved, students are no longer exposed to this danger and the amount of waste entering each bin is regulated, decreasing the physical danger. Halpin also pointed out that the necessary business negotiations with the compost haulers should not have been student responsibilities in the first place.

Currently, certain students in Environmental Studies 302, a course on environmental planning, are working on further improving the College’s composting program by developing a proposal for the administration later this year. One of their goals is to bringing the actual composting site process closer to home, since trucking all of the food waste to Dalton is environmentally inefficient in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and also fails to create a learning environment close to campus.

One possibility currently being explored is contracting local farms to create compost sites where the College can deposit the food waste. “Ideally, as the planners of the project, we want to see the College bring the whole process on campus,” said Bethie Miller ’03, one of the student planners.

“We want the composting to occur where people can see it – that is where the educational value comes in.” The students are looking into a variety of campus sites for composting as well as different methods for composting.

According to Miller, the College lags behind other New England schools in terms of composting. She cited Middlebury, which has a greenhouse whose heating system is fueled by composted waste, as one example. At Bates, Volpi instituted a composting program which involved a partnership with a local farm. At UMass-Amherst, compost is processed in a gigantic mechanical digester.